Amid the ongoing debate over Facebook’s policy of exempting political advertising from its “misinformation” standards, a “defiant” speech on free expression delivered Thursday by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has elevated broader concerns about how powerful tech giants are “poisoning the well of our democracy.”
Facebook’s recent revision of its political ad policy, first reported on earlier this month by journalist Judd Legum in his newsletter “Popular Information,” enables political figures such as President Donald Trump to widely circulate lies and has elicited criticism from other politicians like Democratic presidential primary candidates former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
The Verge’s Silicon Valley editor Casey Newton wrote earlier this month that “Facebook’s approach to this problem has been to make political ads public so that researchers, journalists like Legum, and curious citizens can investigate the content of those ads themselves — and then have a free debate over their merits on and off the platform. It’s not a perfect solution, but it is a democratic one.”
“Hovering around this debate is a larger, unspoken concern about our current moment, which is that there is increasingly little penalty in public life for telling any lie at all,” Newton added. “Pressing as that issue is, though, it’s unclear what a tech platform ought to do about it.”
The national discussion provoked by Facebook’s ad policy has led to renewed calls for federal efforts to battle misinformation and the outsize control Big Tech companies exercise on the flow of information to the public. Some advocates suggest legislation requiring reforms at major technology firms and directing money toward improving journalism.
“Advertising revenue that used to go to quality journalism is now captured by big tech intermediaries, and some of that money now goes to dishonest, low-quality, and fraudulent content,” Matt Stoller, a fellow at the Open Markets Institute, wrote in an op-ed titled “Tech Companies Are Destroying Democracy and the Free Press” for The New York Times Thursday.
Stoller argued that “the concentration of online advertising revenue in the hands of Google and Facebook,” which diverts funds from publishers, and “an ethical breakdown — a natural consequence of advertising financing an information utility like a social network or search engine,” has produced a “dysfunctional information ecosystem… characterized by polarization, addiction, and conspiracy theories.”